Choosing the right travel companion 07.12.2022
More and more people are fulfilling their dream of owning a motor home. Camper van travel is definitely in vogue, as the simplicity of being and proximity to nature are great antidotes to the daily grind; however, the sheer variety of vehicles on offer can be confusing. To stop the dream from becoming a nightmare, it’s important to consider certain things before buying.
Deciding whether van life is the right choice
Before going into the details of the individual van types, you should ask yourself whether van life is really suitable for your holiday needs. Or are you just following the latest trend? When you think of campsites and enjoying dinner under a starry sky, does it bring back childhood memories? What is your motivation for buying a camper van? It’s important to ask yourself questions like these before buying what can be a costly travel companion. To be on the safe side, it’s worth renting a camper van for your first few trips and holidays. This means you get to try out a range of models, and you’ll quickly realise whether you’re really cut out for living in a confined space. Thanks to the boom that van life is enjoying, there are now many good rental vehicle providers willing to share their expertise with customers.
Checklist to help you choose the right camper van
Once you’ve decided to purchase your own camper van, there are several things to consider before buying. It’s important to decide what your comfort needs are. And where, when and how the vehicle will be used. Here’s a checklist to help you make your choice:
1. Type of use and length of trip
One of the first questions you should ask yourself when choosing a camper van, and its equipment and appointments, is: “Where will I use the vehicle and for how long?” Your choice will depend on whether you need the vehicle for a week in sunny Italy a couple of times a year, a three-month tour of Scandinavia or a round-the-world voyage, for example. Here, you need to consider the temperature in your destination country, but also whether you want to drive off-road, which means you’ll need all-wheel drive and higher ground clearance. And would you prefer to stay on smaller, more rustic campsites or larger sites with a well-developed infrastructure? These are all key factors to take into account when deciding on the size and fit-out of your future camper van.
You should therefore be clear about the following aspects before buying a camper van:
- Temperature in your destination country/countries
- Degree of self-sufficiency you want
- Quality of the roads on your travel routes
- Your preferred type of campsite
2. Everyday vehicle or second vehicle
Many people who own a small camper bus use it as both a camper van and an everyday vehicle for doing the shopping, playing sport, going skiing, etc. If you want to use the vehicle as more than just a camper van, it’s important to bear this in mind when deciding what to buy, as you will certainly have to make more compromises than you would if you were buying an “out-and-out camper”. If you’re looking for a camper van that you can also use as an everyday vehicle, you should therefore choose a model that easily converts into a camper van without you having to compromise too much on sleeping comfort during your trips.
Another central question is how much you want to and can afford to spend on a camper van – the prices vary hugely! Here, it’s important to factor in not only the actual purchase cost when making your decision, but also other things such as:
- Amount of conversion work still required
- Vehicle maintenance, including the cost of spare parts
- Insurance – dependent on the vehicle size and type
- Fuel consumption
- Parking costs
It’s also important to remember that, even if the vehicle is not used that often, it still needs regular maintenance, and you still have to pay insurance premiums and taxes. Another key factor is finding a safe and, if possible, covered place to park the vehicle in order to maximise its useful life. If you have another vehicle and want to cut costs after purchasing a camper van, you should look at the option of using the same licence plates for both vehicles. If you use the camper van at certain times of year only, you should check whether it’s possible to deposit the licence plates with the local authority when the vehicle is not in use.
4. Self-build conversion versus ready-made camper van
Fitting out your vehicle exactly how you want it may seem like an exciting and satisfying proposition initially, but it can very quickly become a source of frustration if you don’t possess the necessary knowledge and skills. The process involved – from coming up with initial ideas to planning to actually converting the vehicle – is a lengthy one and must be viewed as a means to an end. This process has become even more arduous since the pandemic – due to longer delivery times for raw materials and non-available spare parts. If you’re not sure whether you want to go through all this, it’s probably better to buy the finished vehicle or enlist the help of an expert to convert the vehicle for you.
5. Equipment and appointments
Before purchasing a camper van, you should also define what you need in terms of equipment, appointments, luxury and comfort. Do you want a large bed or more space for cooking? Do you want to be self-sufficient for as long as possible? Do you want a larger vehicle with shower and toilet or a smaller vehicle with fewer home comforts? Being aware of your needs will answer many of the questions regarding the necessary equipment and appointments. Here, too, it’s not a bad idea to rent and try out various models before deciding what to buy. Features that initially seem unnecessary may actually turn out to be must-haves during longer trips or in bad weather. If you decide against an on-board toilet or an auxiliary heater, you may quickly regret this when the weather turns cold and it starts snowing. So you shouldn’t underestimate your comfort needs. And you should find out all you can about future conversion options.
6. Vehicle size
Once you’ve defined the equipment and appointments you need, you should have some idea about the size of vehicle required; the more comfort and self-sufficiency you want, the bigger your travel companion will have to be. It’s important to remember that you need a C1 licence to drive a vehicle weighing over 3.5 tonnes and even a truck licence (Category C) if the vehicle weighs over 7.5 tonnes. You should therefore think long and hard about your must-haves and nice-to-haves. Another factor to consider when looking at vehicle size is standing room. If you intend to use the camper van mostly for sleeping, you won’t necessarily need to stand up inside the vehicle, meaning that you can choose a lower model; this also makes it easier to drive under underpasses or into underground car parks, thus avoiding any nasty surprises during your trip – old railway underpasses, in particular, often have just 3.5 metres of headroom at the very most. Pop-up roofs and awnings are ideal compromises, as they can be set up quickly after arrival at the campsite to create more living and sleeping space.
7. Number of travellers
Another important aspect to consider when choosing your vehicle is the number of people who will be travelling and sleeping on board, particularly in the case of families. If you’re thinking of purchasing a camper van for family holidays, or even for longer trips with the family, there are a couple of other factors to take into account in addition to those mentioned above. Remember that children grow up fast. And think about what a new arrival in the family would mean. Whereas travelling with a small child can be relatively easy, having three pubescent teenagers with you can be a different matter entirely. It may therefore be important to establish mini safe havens inside the camper van, despite the limited space, where everyone can be by themselves for a while, or to install modular furnishings that can be adapted to the ages of the children. When travelling with the whole family, the amount of luggage shouldn’t be underestimated, either – everyone has their own suitcase, you need more food and drink, and you require more space to stow sports and leisure items. That’s a lot of weight and bulk, meaning that a small or medium-size vehicle can quickly become too cramped – in which case you may need to consider a small truck in order to meet all your needs.
When choosing a “home on wheels”, you should definitely take your time – as this is the best way to ensure long-term enjoyment of this exciting and adventurous form of travel. If you’re visiting the Swiss Caravan Salon in Bern between 27 and 31 October 2022, there will be no shortage of exhibitors happy to answer any questions or concerns you may have.